On my first morning in Vegas I walked into the hinterland behind the Strip to visit Record City. It was a long, hot, dusty walk and because of the particular geography of Las Vegas Boulevard I ended up just a couple of blocks east of the Strip. While I was in the shop the owner talked on the phone to various people about new picture discs that had just come in – either this is how he makes a living from the shop or he just doesn’t really like old vinyl with which the shop is full. The music in the shop all comes through the computer. The second hand records were marked down by 25% and the floor was covered with $1 crates. Here are two finds from digging through these crates.
2. The Beat Cafe
Downtown on Fremont, east of the Fremont Experience, Las Vegas becomes kind of normal. The Beat is a coffee shop and record store with tiny art galleries attached. The music they play is all on vinyl – the record deck sits on the counter where you place your order. They play old Beatles and Hendrix records and they stick and jump. That’s ok…that’s what records do. I bought a Brian Auger and Julie Tippet record here.
In the Interzone between the southern half of the Strip and Downtown, old Vegas surfaces in dilapidated form. There are motels that have seen better days, strip joints, vacant lots and now some galleries. This area is a lot less ‘scripted’ than the controlled fantasy managed by MGM and Caesar Entertainment. At the hottest part of the day I stopped under a tree for shade and realised the tree was full of birds chattering in the same kind of repetitive weave of sound as the slot machines in the casino. But the birds were so deep within the foliage that they were invisible.
This is the situatonist city gone wrong. The Las Vegas Strip is an urban environment characterised by traps, snares, dead-ends, labyrinths and false tracks. But the labyrinth here is a means of control rather than a way of getting lost. There is an illusion of density caused by the artificial lighting of interiors and the abundance of mirrors but, as Calvino would have it, this is really a ‘Thin City’. Heading east away from the Strip the walker quickly enters a hinterland of car parks, low-rise housing and service buildings.
Thousands of people negotiate the Strip as best they can on foot but are blocked and manipulated; steered more or less willingly into casinos and shopping malls. The exteriors of these buildings refer to ‘real’ places, Rome, Paris, New York, Venice. The theatre is continued indoors with ‘canals’ and versions of the Forum. Last night I ate a Mexican meal in a Morroccan street in the eternal twilight under a painted cartoon blue sky. From my seat at the bar I could see 5 different TV channels on 12 monitors. There were too many sources of music to be able to distinguish one from another. Right now I can hear the rumbling of a band playing at a pool party 25 floors below (‘Hotel California with added echo and reverb) and at the same time there is the tinny background sound of canned music from an adjacent pool.
Sound becomes a kind of fog that adds to disorientation. Occasionally this fog is punctured by a burst of noise – a ‘volcano’, a spectacular explosive fountain display or the dull sound of recorded bells broadcasting from the campanile of St Marks. Speakers along the meandering disjointed sidewalks spew out a barrage of invitations to experience the particular novelties of certain casinos. Music and traffic noise fill any sonic gaps that might appear. The music is anything from Parisian accordions to the B52s. I have heard the latter 3 times in the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel and the lyrics – ‘Roam, if you want to, roam around the world…’ provide an ironic commentary to this place that acts as a replacement for travel, a replacement for anything that might be unexpected.
This attempt to replace the unknown with a set of pre-scripted experiences is ultimately melancholic. The things Vegas doesn’t recognise are decay and death. But no matter how many relics are swept away and how much is effaced there is the lingering suspicion that this city embodies a kind of grim futility.